Sissinghurst – forever, for everyone? by John Sales

July 15, 2016

in General Interest

I thought that this response to last week’s piece, Commercial at what Cost? from
John Sales, the National Trust’s chief gardens adviser until his retirement in 1998, merited a separate post.
Anne Wareham, editor
 Anne portrait-1 s (2)
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John Sales: 

Your thoughtful piece about Troy Smith’s approach to the job at Sissinghurst raises some important issues.The first is that it is impossible to recreate a garden exactly according to the original and retain it thus, indeed this aim would be contrary to the very nature of gardens, which are constantly changing and developing day-to-day, month-to-month and year-to-year. Apart from their inorganic structure, we are dealing with a complex series of interacting processes which need to be guided according to a shared ideal. This ideal has to be tempered by reality and changed circumstances, including funding, climate etc., and change of use e.g. mass visiting, events etc. The fundamental challenge at Sissinghurst is over-visiting – responding to 100 times as many visitors as the place was created for.

I remember Sissinghurst in Vita’s time – just – and it was very much more patchy – brilliantly inventive but uneven. Private owners can enjoy the luxury of not going into bits of the garden that are unkempt or “not doing it” at any particular time; so we avoid them. Would current visitors accept this seasonal approach? In those days the Nuttery was (almost)  all a big splash  of polyanthus but getting sick from repetition and impossible to sustain. The present sophisticated ground cover scheme was developed by Pam Schwerdt and Sibylle Kreutzberger with Graham Thomas – should it be scrapped in the interest of “revitalisation” ? The point is that it is unrealistic to expect “private” gardens that have become “public” to a greater or lesser extent, to remain as they were.V SW 20160711_174114 (1)

The only sensible approach to garden conservation is to analyse the full significance of each, which demands research and judgement to a high degree – historic, aesthetic, architectural, horticultural, educational, social, environmental, influential, originality etc. Obviously these elements differ for each garden and it is essential to identify them and to rank them according to importance. The purpose is to set out the special significance of the garden ranked in “priority” terms. What are the qualities / values that make this garden different / special? In terms of the National Trust – what are the qualities / values for which the garden was acquired for long-term “preservation” (conservation)?

In this way it is possible to decide what can be retained (perhaps) in changing circumstances and what cannot, In the last resort, what do we save in a crisis? What do you grab when “the house is on fire” or ” the ship is sinking”?

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I suggest that with Sissinghurst significance certainly did not stop when Vita died. The fact is that this garden, developed and “recreated” by Pam and Sibylle and guided by Graham, led the post-War renaissance in flower gardening of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Their artistic plantsmanship was jointly honed to an unprecedented degree. The garden rightly became an icon of their post-Jekyll style, managed to an extraordinary degree of continuing perfection throughout the opening season, attracting far too many visitors for its own good; hence the many minor changes to accommodate them.  Its significance throughout this period and now is that it has become doubly important both as Vita’s creation , faithfully preserved, with a more horticulturally interesting and artistically arranged overlay. This garden has had an immense influence all over the world, based on this combination of qualities; even Great Dixter (whatever Christo would say) owed  a great deal to Sissinghurst during his time. Literally millions of people went home with a new image of gardening.  Highly significant I think.

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Of course we now have other trends, led principally by television and the big flower shows, but this should not stop us valuing the Sissinghurst style and quality.

So your question “what do we open gardens for?” begs too many questions. The fact is that the National Trust is greedy and applies the same considerations to all its properties (forever, for everyone) which are inevitably destructive to special places like Sissinghurst, Hidcote etc., which need to be protected from the hordes and are simply not suited to the needs of everyone.

John Sales

John Sales portrait. Copyright Charles Hawes.

See also  and Everyone has their idea of Paradise

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